Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image is a fascinating read about how writing reconfigured the human brain. Shlain says that preliterate agricultural cultures venerating female values used mainly the right half of the hemisphere thus tended to be holistic. But once writing was introduced, there was a shift towards linear left brain thinking. This shift introduced a patriarchal society with all its misogynist evils.
Virginia Woolf also writes of the brain’s duality. While recognizing that the one side is male whereas the other female, she says that “If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect and a woman must also have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties.”
It is the right side of the brain that develops first. Older thus wiser than the left, it is better at negotiating. The right side, says Shlain, “contributes a field-awareness to consciousness, synthesizing multiple converging determinants so that the mind can grasp the senses’ input all-at-once.”
Being non-verbal, the right hemisphere is not an orator. But that doesn’t keep it from expressing the notion of being.
Says Shlain: “The right brain perceives the world concretely” as it absorbs what is there without trying to translate it into words. Thus right brains (women) are more concrete than the abstract left brains (men).
The earliest known writing is that of the Sumerians invented c. 3400 BC.* The alphabet had not yet been created so pictographs were drawn onto clay tablets with a pointed object. The writing was not intended for poetry or for expressing feelings. It was meant for bureaucratic accounting such as documenting personal property and business agreements. It was meant for the material world and very left brain oriented.
The right hemisphere, quoting Shlain, is “the portal leading to the world of the invisible. It is the realm of altered states of consciousness where faith and mystery rule over logic. There is compelling evidence that dreaming occurs primarily in the right brain.”
The main difference between the two hemispheres is that the right side is concerned with being whereas the left side is concerned with doing.
The side of the brain we use the most will influence our ways of knowing what we know.
Most mornings we go to the beach near our house for a quick swim. It is not unusual to see a group of elderly Parian women in the water together talking away. Most of them wear hats for protection so, being several meters away from the shore, you can only see their hats bobbing around as they talk. These ladies are Olympic champions when it comes to treading water because they can be out there tranquilly talking for a very long time.
This morning I was alone in the water when one of my neighbors who was paddling around alone came quite close to me. Being polite, we said Hello and started a typical conventional conversation. Soon we were talking about a bunch of stuff including mutual health concerns.
There are many ways to know about things such as the use of the senses, of reasoning, of imagination, etc. And books of course. But some of the best knowledge I’ve acquired has come from talking with others. Some examples: after my son was born, my girlfriends who were already mothers gave me the best practical advice. And when we came to Paros, girlfriends once again were the ones telling me how to deal with local bureaucracy. And when my mom had to go to the hospital, once again my girlfriends were telling me how to deal with the insurance companies. They were all sharing their own experiences with me to make my life easier.
Everyone we know has something to teach us. We just need to observe and listen.
*The oldest known Chinese writing dates to 3600 years ago. The writing was found on animal bones known as oracle bones.
Related: 5,000-year-old primitive writing generates debate in China